Seasonal Associate, a new book by German writer and translator Heike Geissler published by Semiotext(e), may be the most oppressive and least sexed-up work of auto-fiction I have ever read—an observation that would read like criticism if the medium did not so perfectly, and with such deadening realism, fit the message, and if Seasonal Associate’s blurb did not already call the plot: ‘a twenty-first century account of how the brutalities of working life are transformed into exhaustion, shame, and self-doubt.’ The brutalities of working life in this instance are more brutal than in some: Geissler, unable to survive on the small income brought in by her usual work as a writer, takes a warehouse job at Amazon, in Leipzig. (For most writers, this insolvency will no doubt strike a frighteningly familiar note. The job is, hideously, categorised in haute-2010s style as something called ‘flex-time employment’. ‘Seasonal Associate’ is the job title, as well as—fortunately—a good title for a book. The work is both tiring and ‘easy’, in the sense that it is not especially skilled, and although it should be far more straightforward than her usual job, the rules are half lost in translation. Most oppressive and least sexed-up, or least palatable, of all: Seasonal Associate is written in a mixture of the first and second person, so that although these events in actual life befell the author, Heike Geissler, they are in fact, in the realm of auto-fiction, happening to you. ‘You have a job interview,’ she writes. ‘You’ll set out and I’ll accompany you, and tell you what it’s all like and what’s happening to you. From now on, you are me.’ Being Geissler for the next two-hundred pages is not necessarily anyone’s idea of a good time, even if it this their idea of a good book: written in what feels like real-time, work at Amazon is, as the news has shown, enough to make the average worker suicidal. In the afterword for Seasonal Associate, the academic Kevin Vennemann cites Maya Deren’s 1943 film, Meshes of the Afternoon. ‘Six, maybe seven minutes in,’ he writes:
‘There is this short scene, really just a few takes: the film’s lead character…crawls across the living room ceiling… and then, from up there, she spots herself asleep in the living room armchair below, dreaming of herself being stuck on the living room ceiling of this same home…Running just under 15 minutes, Meshes is a deceptively short arrangement of complex depth…Which of the many identical women is the protagonist and which are mere apparitions?… Of [its] many-layered, many-angled perspectives, the living-room-and-window scene has always stood out to me for its visualization of a twofold out-of-body experience Marx diagnosed as one of our fundamental, most devastating experiences in capitalism. ‘Man,’ he writes, ‘duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.’’
Funny, to see ‘man’ here when within the context of the doubled interior life, the word ‘woman’ feels truer, and perversely more traditional. It is neither incidental nor un-meaningful that Meshes of the Afternoon is written and directed by a woman, or that Geissler, on the first page of her ‘novel,’ clarifies that because ‘from now on, [we] are [her],’ we are female. (‘Please,’ she urges, ‘don’t forget that, because it’s important in places.’ Several times, ‘we’ are harassed, belittled, and otherwise gaslit by male workers and superiors, offering further proof that Seasonal Associate is factual, and not fictional.) Meshes of the Afternoon uses, as its motifs, a key, a knife. Work itself is a killing knife; and it is also, for the purpose of facilitating entry into normal, dismal adult life, a key. ‘Is this a matter of life and death?’ Geissler enquires, in the very first line. ‘I’ll say no for the moment, and come back to the question later.’ Work, ergo the split-brained disassociation we experience under capitalism, is for most of us a matter of life and death. It is the fact that it is necessary for most of us in order to live that makes it feel especially like dying. Roughly one month before reading Seasonal Associate, I quit my job in the capital city and moved to a smaller one, with the reason being capital-as-in-capitalism, as in cold, hard cash. The life and the context that I had enjoyed since I was eighteen, never not precarious financially or psychologically, tipped into bona fide non-viability. That summer, which felt like the hottest summer since records began, ensured that nothing natural looked or felt green, but instead looked torrefied, sick. I could not make myself take that kind of work, the killing kind of work, to stay.
‘From now on,’ Geissler clarifies a few lines later, ‘that which kills us is your constant companion: that much I can say.’ I have killed, in leaving office hours behind, the thing that killed me. Who or what is my companion now? In Seasonal Associate, it is apparent that work offers definition, even if that definition is in opposition to the worker’s hatred of the job. What was meant to be a temporary measure for the author becomes all-consuming: the weight of it crushes her into a new, strange shape. The book is, mirroring the work, repetitive enough to be hypnotic. It was 2010 when Geissler worked at Amazon, at which time nobody was interested in the manuscript for Seasonal Associate. In 2015, in The New York Times, a story ran alleging that the company appeared to be ‘conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable,’ and the value of an exposé of mega-corporate working practices—and of Amazon’s working practices especially—became clear.
‘Workers,’ the New York Times’ lede revealed, ‘are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high’. The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. “Nearly every person I worked with,” a former employee reported, “I saw crying at their desk.” ’
‘So to return to the question from the beginning,’ Geissler writes on Seasonal Associate’s eightieth page, ‘about whether it’s a matter of life and death, I’m now saying clearly: Yes, it is.’ The rest of us—our eyes opened to the realities of what Amazon’s founder called, unwittingly express-delivering to the media the rope with which to hang him, a ‘soulless, dystopian workplace, where no fun is had and no laughter heard’—are ready now for her to say it, too.
Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler is published by Semiotext(e).
Philippa Snow is a writer, based in Norwich. Her reviews and essays have appeared in publications including Artforum, Sight & Sound, GARAGE, Frieze, The Cut, and Tank magazine.